by Captain Lillian Kinkela Keil, R.N., United States Air Force (Ret.)
A strange stillness had settled over the Air Station at Bottesford, England, that June day in 1944. We were awakened, not by the sound of the Junker 88â€™s overhead on their regular bombing runs to London, nor by the bustle of activity on the base, but by the silence. The paratroopers were gone! â€œD-Day,â€ we whispered simultaneously.
The greatest amphibious landing in history was taking place across the channel on a 50-mile stretch of beach in Normandy, and although we had not been alerted to the exact date and time, we knew this was â€œit.â€ Our 801st Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron, along with the 101st and 82nd Airborne paratroopers, and the glider pilots, had officially become the First Allied Airborne Army of the 9th Air Force. My personal part in this historical event was about to get underway.
I had recently returned from temporary ambulance line duty at the Bassingbourne base hospital that housed the B-17s of the 8th Air Force Bombardment Group. My duties there were to attend the wounded when the B-17s returned from bombing runs and â€œV-Bombâ€ sites in Germany. The targets were heavily fortified with anti-aircraft batteries and our bomber crews suffered wounds from flak and shrapnel, as well as from 101 millimeter shells. Frostbite was also a constant and serious concern in the winter in unheated, high altitude aircraft.
We always knew when our bombers were due back, especially when they were overdue, and strained to catch the first glimpse of them as they limped back to the safety of the airfield. The lineup of fire trucks and emergency vehicles were poised and ready to help. I watched for the red flare that signaled wounded aboard, and held my breath whenever I heard an engine sputter. Iâ€™d pray that the plane would land safely. Some did, some did not.
The planes with wounded always landed first and taxied to a revetment (air raid shelter) where our ambulances were assembled. Medical personnel climbed aboard to render first aid and unload the wounded. Once they were in the ambulance we took them to the station hospital, or drove them to a nearby military hospital where special surgical teams awaited them. On other occasions, I traveled by ambulance with two corpsmen to tend to and return crewmen who had ditched in the English Channel and were rescued by fishermen, or had made their way to areas along the coast of England.
After the Normandy Landing, the pace picked up for the 801st Air Evacuation crews. Wherever a toehold was established and called a battle zone; that would be our destination. The pilot & copilot, my medical technician and I, would scramble aboard a C-47 crammed full of gas, oil, rations, and medical supplies, and head out over the channel to the battlefield. Since we carried military supplies, we couldnâ€™t hide behind the safety of the Red Cross insignia. Despite that fact, and since sleep was something we never got enough of, I learned to doze with my head resting on my oxygen tank sitting atop an oil drum. We always carried our own C-rations wherever we went, since we never knew when weâ€™d be back or have time to eat.
Our C-47 flew to the designated battle zone and landed in the fields and flats of the countryside, as close to the action as possible. We brought in medical supplies for the hastily assembled Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals (M.A.S.H.), as well as supplies needed to run the army.
Wherever we landed, smoke rising in the distance and the dull roar of heavy artillery marked the front line. Everyone pitched in to help unload our supplies. Some wounded soldiers were already stabilized by corpsmen in the field. Those on litters came directly from the Mobile Hospital with more critical wounds that would require special attention. My heart ached for those carefully covered and lying silently in neat rows awaiting another plane for their ride home.
We quickly converted the inside of the plane into an efficient medical ward. The litters were arranged into four tiers with the grips fitting comfortably and safely into heavy nylon loops affixed to long nylon straps that dropped down from the ceiling and were attached to the floor. Other airplanes had metal posts from ceiling to floor with slots for the litterâ€™s grips. When in place, they looked much like bunks. The C-47 could hold a maximum of 24 wounded soldiers. Sometimes we would squeeze in three litters on the floor. My tech and I instructed the corpsmen to arrange the patients according to the seriousness and the location of their wounds. The wound was always on the aisle side for easy access. As patients were passed on from battlefield medic to field hospital to us, their forehead was marked with a â€œMSâ€ indicating that he had received morphine sulfate; other information regarding his wound would be written on a tag attached to his clothing.